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Small Australian-Chinese team explores new ground in Tibet
Posted on: January 12, 2017
The red line shows the approximate route of Standing Room Only (Russian Alpine Grade 5a, Scottish IV, M4, 650m) on the West Face of Xialongrezha (5678m). The first four pitches are obscured below the fin of rock. [Photo] Rob Baker
A team of three Australian and two Chinese climbers rendezvoused in late October to make the first ascent of the previously undocumented 5678-meter peak they named Xialongrezha to the west of the Genyen massif in the Shaluli Range, Sichuan, China.
Team member Ed Hannam, who has climbed in China for 20 years, reports that Xialongrezha was previously "unnamed and incorrectly marked as 5851 or 5346 meters by some sources. A quintessential Eastern Himalayan peak, Xialongrezha is the closest 5500+ meter peak to the near-completely closed border to Xizang province, Tibet."
The expedition consisted of "organizational legend" Zhang Jiyue, and "sharp-end expert" Alex Tang, both from China, and climbers Mitch Murray, Rob Baker and Ed Hannam, from Australia.
"Jiyue is the most well-known logistics guy in Sichuan, probably China," Hannam said. "He's run the serious trips for decades, including for Tom Nakamura. He's the only guy who can properly get permits for obscure areas. [Tang] I've done several trips with and he has a willingness to go far beyond anyone else, simply out of his own sense of exploration. He gets us to places we'd never think of. We all function as a team in every way, are all friends.... I've been going to China for 20 years. Mitch is a young hotshot, and Rob has climbed everywhere with everybody from Patagonia to the Alps, Karakoram, Nepal, U.S., etc. Rob and I met in the Karakoram and have been to Sichuan together before. We've both done first ascents [there]."
Xialongrezha viewed on the approach from the edge of town. [Photo] Alex Tang
The climbers originally had their sights set on other unclimbed peaks in the region.
"We wanted to go to [the] Genyen [area] but realized it was busy with other climbers, so to avoid them, we looked at undocumented peaks outside the central massif," Hannam said. "Research showed we could maybe access from the west, so we gambled on it (combined with a decade studying the conditions) and Alex found a way in that there was a perfect route on a perfect peak right there was a big surprise. There were other options, too, but they are for next time."
They climbed Xialongrezha in 12 pitches with some simulclimbing and simul-soloing. Some of the pitches were notably runout, and they stopped about 20 meters short of the summit because of snow conditions on the smooth rock slabs that didn't offer any protection, and also "out of respect for local Tibetan lore." They called their route Standing Room Only (Russian Alpine Grade 5a, Scottish IV, M4, 650m).
Hannam wrote the following report on their ascent:
Relatively well known, the eastern and central areas of Genyen have been visited regularly for over a decade, including ascents by Sarah Hueniken, Dave Anderson and Joe Puryear," Hannam wrote. "Mt. Genyen itself was first climbed in the 1990s by a Japanese team. It wasn't lost on us that our trip coincided exactly with the tenth anniversary of the deaths of Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff.
The western side of the Genyen mountains is accessed via four days travel along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway from Chengdu via Kangding, Xinduqiao, the 'Tibetan Disneyland' town of Litang and the border town of Batang, then a small road over a 5000-meter pass almost unknown even to the locals," Hannam continued. "Twenty-five kilometers from the upper Yangtze that forms the administrative border, Xialongrezha is prominently visible from the small hamlet at the end of the road, the name translating as 'place of big-horned animals and large boulders.'
We planned to do a first ascent with no additional support, something developed over many previous trips to western Sichuan/eastern Tibet. Going into undocumented terrain completely self-sufficient, our only limitation was the loads we could carry, acclimation and the weather, having banked on the dependable early winter window directly after the last squall of the south Asian monsoon and before the first snows arrived. This year didn't disappoint, with an unbroken string of fifteen days without any form of precipitation.
Advance base camp was at 4900 meters with a direct view of the route. [Photo] Mitch Murray.
Base Camp was several kilometers from the village through a beautiful pine and lichen forest to a sunny vale at 4200 meters. A pastoral delight, with clear aquamarine rushing streams, flocks of pheasants and lazy yaks, we did sorties higher up and after three nights, to consolidate, we decided to move the entire BC up to 4900 meters rather than just a light 'assault bivy.' This involved heavy carries up several kilometers of marsh, boulder fields and scree.
Base Camp II was a true high Tibetan location; stark and lunar. By a small glacially fed lake, the high moraine and room-sized boulders showed no signs of visitation aside from thirsty antelope and small, colorful birds. The difference between direct sun and shade was a +20 Celsius and -10 Celsius differential that bookended each day.
From vantage points along the approach, it was clear the premium route on the west face was the jilted central couloir. We juggled thoughts about various other route alternatives but confirmed the central couloir after a reconnaissance day onto the glacier beneath.
As the route was steep, our acclimation at threshold and the amazing weather window getting on, we led in blocks, seconding together for speed. With good teamwork, good rock and solid snow this worked efficiently.
Ed Hannam leads below the traverse to the upper pitches at around 5350 meters. [Photo] Rob Baker.
After soloing the 90-meter glacial snout to the couloir's base cone, Mitch powered us through the next three pitches, then Ed led up to and around where the couloir changed direction, including a long double pitch with a vigorous traverse. This was followed by Rob launching up five runout pitches on lessening snow quality that ended in a pitch dug through to the slab below the cornice on the summit ridge. A further half-pitch by [me] confirmed the sketchy snow and serious fall potential, leaving the bizarre summit formation unclimbed out of respect for sanity and local Tibetan lore.
Hannam leads toward the summit. He turned around about 4 meters from where he is standing in the photo, approximately 20 meters below the summit. They stopped here out of respect for the local religion and because of dangerous granulated snow over seamless granite slabs. "We left that to the gods of another time," Hannam wrote. [Photo] Rob Baker
The couloir presented no good options for bivies so all 12 pitches were climbed in a single push, nonstop effort on new terrain.
Experience from previous trips had us carrying an array of alpine pro, but we ended up using a time-proven rack of small- to mid-sized cams and wires, beaks and pitons and an occasional screw. Aside from the upper two pitches the snow was excellent, with a mix of glacial and alpine ice. Rock in the western cluster is grade-A granite, fissured with finger- to hand-width cracks splitting contiguous slabs and faces topped wild gendarmes, gargoyles and features.
Chopping through the cornice we could see eastward into the main Genyen area, with 6200-meter Mt. Genyen and other 5500-meter-plus peaks clearly visible. Westward, in the other direction, we could make out long ranges of robust peaks over 6000 meters beyond the closed Tibetan border.
Looking down on Mitch Murray and Rob Baker at the final anchor around 5610 meters, with advance base camp just visible at the lake 700 meters below. [Photo] Ed Hannam
At 4 p.m. we began the many rappels that would get us back to camp at 10 p.m.
Continuing the good weather streak, we spent the following day laying on sun-warmed granite boulders and eating before starting the heavily loaded return to the village. Upon returning to Batang we consumed the hotel's entire supply of roast duck.
Hannam said the trip was entirely self-funded.
"[We did it] the old school way, we just worked to pay for it," he said. "It's actually not that expensive. Rob is an engineer, Mitch is an industrial electrician and I'm a risk analyst. Unless already known, the industry has no interest in supporting grungy trips to unknown places. We just get on with it."
From left to right are Hannam, Baker and Murray. All smiles before the weight of the packs and altitude set in. [Photo] Alex Tang
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